The Final Review

Progressive Chicago North Branch Industrial Corridor Modernization Approved


The Chicago Plan Commission yesterday approved the North Branch Industrial Corridor Framework Plan and Design Guidelines (Framework). This new plan will radically transform the large industrial area along the Chicago River between Kinzie Street and Fullerton Avenue, creating opportunities for investment and redevelopment. If fully realized, Chicago’s North Branch Industrial Corridor Framework Plan could dramatically impact the City’s economy in addition to reshaping Chicago’s built environment.

Chicago_skyline_looking_north_2.jpgModernization of Chicago’s Industrial Corridors

In the spring of 2016, the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD) began an initiative to revitalize the Chicago Industrial Corridors. With the goal to increase jobs and investment in these areas, the initiative includes a review and update of the City’s zoning policies.

Chicago currently has 26 designated Industrial Corridors, areas with manufacturing that are located near means of transportation such as waterways, highways, or rail lines. Any changes from the Industrial Corridors’ manufacturing zoning classification are subject to Chicago Plan Commission review to assure the land is preserved for its intended industrial use. The Industrial Corridors include 15 Chicago Planned Manufacturing Districts (PMD), a zoning classification that restricts residential and other types of non-industrial development such as retail.

History of Chicago North Branch Industrial Corridor

The North Branch Industrial Corridor, four miles along the Chicago River, was the first industrial corridor slated for review and includes four PMDs. 

The Framework divides the corridor into three subdistricts. The North Sub-Area, between Fullerton and North Avenues, is a mixed use area and includes the now vacated Finkl Steel (Finkl) plant. Finkl originally moved to the location during the early 20th century when it was an ideal place for manufacturing given its proximity to rail and river transportation. The company relocated to a modernized plant on the Chicago’s South Side in 2013. In 2016, Sterling Bay, a Chicago real estate developer, purchased the Finkl site for redevelopment.

The Central Sub-Area is largely comprised of Goose Island, an older industrial area located between the Chicago River and the North Branch Canal. Presently, the area is still largely industrial but also includes some offices and utility providers.

The portion of the corridor between Chicago Avenue and Kinzie Street is the South Sub-Area. Located along the Chicago River near downtown, the South Sub-Area includes a former Chicago Tribune printing plant slated for redevelopment. Currently, this zone contains both industrial and office use.

Given much of the corridor’s land is under-utilized or vacant, there was motivation to review how zoning and other changes may stimulate development in the area.

The North Branch Framework

DPD and the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) developed the Framework with stakeholder involvement, and a series of community meetings was held in 2016. A draft of the Framework was made available for public comment on March 19, 2017, and the final draft was released on May 8, 2017.

Change Zoning Classifications

To facilitate more diverse development in the North Branch Industrial Corridor, the Framework recommends reducing the amount of land currently subject to the PMD restrictions. The Central Sub-Area containing Goose Island would remain a PMD. The North Sub-Area, including the former Finkl site, would be changed to a Manufacturing (M) district while the South Sub-Area will become a Downtown Service (DS) district.

A Zoning Overlay District will also exist in parts of the corridor to help the transition to new uses. The Framework’s guidelines recommend adjustments to floor area ratios to permit increases in height and density in order to make way for more open spaces. The rezoning would encourage more mixed-use development in some areas but there would still be restrictions on residential development in many portions of the corridor.

Improve Transportation

The plans also call for steps to improve access to different forms of transportation in order to support workers and residents in the area. The Framework criticizes the current road network and notes that CDOT has already begun studying ways to improve the circulation of traffic in the corridor. Connections to the area could be improved through new bridges for vehicles and removing issues at some of the corridor’s intersections. In general, the existing roads need to be modernized and “smart signals” should be added to better manage traffic.

To reduce the use of cars, the Framework also calls for improved bus transportation and adding comfortable and safe pedestrian and bike paths that connect to transit stations. The Framework proposes studying the feasibility of a north-south transitway that would connect to neighboring areas and transit centers.

Create More Open Space

The Framework calls for the development of 60 acres of public open space. Given the North Branch Industrial Corridor includes important natural features, such as the Chicago River and North Branch Canal, the Framework suggests the development of open space along these areas. A waterfront 30-foot setback is envisioned to allow for trails and other uses.

Additionally, the Framework recommends the addition of trails that would connect to The 606, Chicago’s new adaptive reuse of the former Bloomingdale Line. The development of 17 acres of wetland parks at various locations, including the North Avenue turning basin, are also outlined in the Framework.

According to Crain’s Chicago Business, several Aldermen have criticized the Framework for not including more open space. They sought a public recreational area that is a minimum of 15 acres to be added to the corridor to accommodate various sports activities. The Framework acknowledges these demands and states, “no less than 10 of these 60 acres of open space should be for recreation.”

Funding and Guidelines for Implementation

Sources of funding will be necessary to implement the plans set forth in the Framework. Some revenue will result from redevelopment projects. The Framework suggests a special fee for projects that reduce land in the North Branch Industrial Corridor dedicated to industry. It also recommends two zoning bonus programs to collect funds for improvements in the corridor, the North Branch Floor Area Ratio Bonus and the Neighborhood Opportunity Bonus.

The Framework’s appendix contains detailed guidelines to help achieve the Framework’s goals.These guidelines are comprised of urban design recommendations and best practices.

Future Impact

It is expected that the Framework will be implemented over the next several decades. Chicago Mayor Emanuel’s press release on the draft plan claims the Framework could “triple the local employment base, create tens of thousands of construction jobs, add several thousand new residents, and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity.”

We are looking forward to Chicago’s North Branch Industrial Corridor Framework Plan and Design Guideline’s implementation.